Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Trade school or University ... or both?

Today's insightful article by Dean Dad concerned a story in IHE about incentive pay tied to the USNews ranking of the university (Arizona State, in this case). The only thing I found surprising about the article and all related discussion is that no one had done this before. After all, rankings of comparable institutions influence student enrollment, for reasons ranging from academics and job placement in a specific career to football to the number and quality of the parties on Thursday night. We might wish that the emphasis would be on improved learning outcomes for students, such things as the pass rate on the nursing boards or the professional engineering exam or Rhodes Scholars in philosophy or admission rates to Fancy Grad School, but the enrollment growth that generates the most dollars is most likely to come from factors that reflect the interests of 18 year olds.

Along the way, however, I found one of the comments on IHE to be more interesting than the article and related discussion. In addition to arguing for a BCS-style hybrid ranking of rankings, "RWH" complained about an alleged increase in the emphasis on training vs. education at universities in the half century he? had been a professor. That surprised me, because my impression was that the GI-Bill-driven growth of universities was mostly in the practical areas of business, engineering, education, and the like. Maybe RWH was remembering the short-lived peak of impracticality driven by us baby boomers between 1965 and the 1974 recession.

That remark also reminded me of a sure way to irritate a Provost. I was on the university Academic Policy committee of an Enormous State University as a grad student, and the Provost was complaining about the extra credit hours the engineering accrediting body was insisting on. I remarked that "if you are going to run a trade school, you have to keep the trade happy". He was not pleased at that harsh bit of reality!

However, I will freely grant that engineers and scientists value the critical thinking and analytic skills learned in literature and humanities classes. (They even require them at pure engineering schools like MIT or the Colorado School of Mines.) My point is that universities have always had to respect the external requirements of medicine, engineering, law, state boards of education. They have always sought public recognition for the quality of their grads, playing that USNews game. I'll even admit that our CC plays that game, publicizing our graduates who have gone on to careers of distinction from non-traditional backgrounds. And our President does a pretty good job of getting us in the paper on a regular basis, which makes him our best PR person.

I will close by saying everyone in higher education should embrace the image of providing training with education. I certainly try to emphasize both in my teaching: training, so that certain basic skills are carried out automatically; education, so those skills can be brought to bear in new situations.

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